State's OK for fireworks fizzles in South Portland

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City officially cracks down on owners of ‘disorderly’ houses

SOUTH PORTLAND — Fireworks enthusiasts joined the owners of firebrand houses Monday as targets for new citywide regulations.

City councilors gave initial approval to a local ban on the sale and personal use of fireworks. The council also gave final approval to an ordinance designed to crack down on “disorderly” houses.

The fireworks ban is a product of a state law passed this year legalizes consumer fireworks in Maine. The law, which takes effect in January, allows municipalities to pass their own rules, and South Portland is set to join Portland in banning the products.

The city, at just under 12 square miles, has a population density of about 2,100 people per square mile. That’s just too dense to safely shoot off fireworks, said Councilor Tom Blake, a former firefighter.

“When I go to camp, where everyone has a 40-acre lot, it’s a different story,” Blake said. “There’s a time and a place for everything.”

Residents overwhelmingly support the ban on fireworks, City Manager Jim Gailey has said. At the meeting Monday, only one person showed up to oppose the ordinance: Lonnie Basse, a lawyer from Tulsa, Okla.

Basse represents TNT Fireworks, a company owned by the Anderson family, which also owns Books-A-Million, the bookseller slated to take over the former Borders store at the Maine Mall. When the Borders deal was approved, the Anderson’s also set sights on selling fireworks in South Portland.

“Individual cities banning fireworks really doesn’t accomplish what they’d like,” Basse told the council. “At that point, all you’re doing is pushing business to the boundaries of your city.”

Basse said it was a better idea to treat fireworks like guns: allow the sale, prohibit the use. He also said he wished the council would have reached out to the fireworks industry in its deliberations on the ordinance. Gailey said no fireworks people were present during any rounds of talks about the proposed ban.

“I’d like for you all to reconsider, and possibly have another workshop where we can get some people form the fireworks industry and look at all sides of this,” Basse said.

But most councilors didn’t buy the “fireworks are the same as guns” argument. Councilor Maxine Beecher said the likelihood of a resident shooting off a rifle in their backyard is minuscule compared to the likelihood of a teenager shooting off a skyrocket.

Councilor Tom Coward supported allowing the sale of fireworks in the city, but didn’t push for it.

“We are the biggest commercial center in the state,” Coward said. “I’d love to have people buy them in South Portland and then take them out in the woods to use appropriately.”

But Coward didn’t move to change the ordinance, saying he knew an amendment would “go over like a lead balloon.”

The ordinance passed the first reading unanimously. If it passes final approval on Oct. 17, it would carry a penalty of $200-$400 for a first offense of illegal firework use, with subsequent charges carrying fines of $300-$600.

Sale of fireworks would be punished more stiffly, with a minimum fine of $500 for the first offense and $1,000 after that.

Disruptive residents

Councilors also passed a new ordinance to help the city crack down on owners of “disorderly” houses – properties to which police are called regularly for excessive noise, loud parties or more serious crimes.

Under the ordinance, owners of these properties would be required to meet with the police and come up with a mutually agreed-upon remedy, or face legal action, including fines of up to $2,000 per day.

Landlords met with the council last week to protest the fine structure, which they said is too burdensome. But the feeling from Ferry Village residents who live near a handful of disorderly houses say punishment is just fine.

“I don’t speed, because I’d get a speeding ticket and it costs me money,” said Wendy Case, who lives on Mosher Street.

Case echoed the sentiments of Gailey, the city manager, who said the fines are a last-ditch provision to add teeth to the ordinance. He said it’s not the city’s goal to fine landlords or property owners.

“The fines only kick in if the landlord doesn’t meet with the Police Department and carry through with a mitigation plan,” Gailey said. “It’s only a last resort.”

Still, Coward tried to lower the minimum fine from $1,000 to $250. He said it is important for judges – who ultimately would impose the fine – to have leeway in deciding how much to sting landlords. But he found no support among the other councilors.

“The intent of the fine is that it hurts,” Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said. “It should hurt.”

The ordinance also requires disclosure of property ownership to the city. Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette and Gailey have said the preponderance of limited liability corporations and other forms of anonymous ownership often make it difficult for the city to contact whomever is responsible for a building.

The ordinance requires property owners to disclose a mailing addresses and home phone numbers of the people or companies responsible for managing their properties.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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